Sturla Gunnarsson, Part 1: Beginnings of His Career

Interviewed by Evelyn Ellerman at Toronto on March, 2012

My name is Sturla Gunnarsson. I'm a filmmaker, writer, and sometimes producer, in self-defense. Currently, I'm President of the Directors Guild and still a working director.

I got into filmmaking after I finished my university studies. I studied political science and English literature. So, I've always been interested in the relationship between art and society, between the individual and the historical moment. I spent a lot of time traveling at first because I didn't really know what I wanted to do. So, I spent several years doing blue-collar work: a fishing boat in Iceland, worked as a shepherd in Crete, worked on construction in North Sea oil... When I came back to Canada, I thought that if I could find a way to continue to continue journeying into worlds that I knew nothing about and turn it into something… if I could make a living at that, it would be a vocation that I could get excited about.

At university, I had already been making films. This was back in the multidisciplinary days when your English essay could be a film. I think that my first brush with show business was a film about developing revolutionary consciousness among the peasants in Hunan province in 1948. It was that kind of thing. It was the 70s. When I came back, I thought that that was what I wanted to do. So, I did a post-graduate film program and made a student film that hit the sweet spot and won a lot of awards, in Canada, the United States, and in Europe. That led to another film, and another.

So, for several years, I was making films by scraping resources together. I felt lucky just to be able to buy the film stock, never mind make a living at it. But eventually, out of the blue one day, someone called me and said, “Would you like to make a film for me?” And I thought, "What? You mean you're going to pay me?” And that's how my career started. My first film in that scenario was a documentary. And again, I got lucky and hit the sweet spot. It got nominated for an Oscar. So, all of a sudden I'm an Oscar-nominated filmmaker. I was clueless. I was a clueless Oscar-nominated filmmaker. Then, I made a couple of documentaries before developing my first feature film, which was about diplomatic immunity. It was a film set in El Salvador, about the war there, and seen from the perspective of a Canadian aid officer. That led to other things.

Ellerman. You came back to Canada at an interesting time for the development of film. It was the beginning of provincial corporations organized for funding films locally. The 70s were seminal period for that, certainly for anglophone production, and likely in Québec. Can you describe that era for making film in Canada and the kind of climate in which filmmakers were operating? How receptive for example were audiences? And how helpful were governments in helping to finance films?

G. Well, it's always hard when you're in the middle of something, to get any perspective on it. Back then, this was 1977 and 1978 for me, the thought that if I could just scrape enough money together to buy film stock and pay the lab, that was as good as it got. Then you'd steal some food and live in a squat. That's what we did. It was the beginning of the Canadian Film Development Corporation; they’d just started. One of my film instructors, Peter Bryant, had just made a film called The Supreme Kid (1976). Zale Dalen had just made a film called Skip Tracer (1977). These are things that we aspired to. These were films that were equity financed by the Canadian Film Development Corporation at a very low budget, maybe $100-150,000. It seemed like a king's ransom to us.

Once we moved into the 80s, the nation-building experiment started in earnest from the early success of the Canadian Film Development Corporation, which led to Telefilm and then we started to see these provincial funding agencies come into play. About that whole era, there was a sense of nation-building; there was a sense of pride in this idea that you could make films that spoke in your own language, that used your own cultural references, and reflected your own experience. I remember that when I first saw Montréal Main (1974), it just blew my mind. I thought, “Wow! You can make a film like that in Canada.” You can't underestimate the impact of that on a public citizenry; I grew up in a Canada where we believed that nothing meaningful ever happened here. Everything meaningful happened in the United States, because that was what you saw on television, that was what you saw on the screen. When we began to have the sense that our own reality could actually be the fodder for a screen-based narrative, it was a very powerful idea.